The book that changed me
From Catch-22 to The Break, Dostoevsky to Dahl, here are books that left a lasting mark on Globe writers who devoured their pages
I bought Joseph Heller's Catch-22 in the summer of 1980, at Shakespeare and Company, when I was living in Paris. The store's stamp is on the inside cover, along with the price – 25 francs – etched in pencil. The book, a Corgi edition with a simple red cover, is a treasured possession. It would be money well spent for a struggling student.
Of course, I had heard about Catch-22. It had been published almost 20 years earlier and Mike Nichols had turned it into an overwrought black comedy with an all-star cast that included Alan Arkin and Jon Voight. Distracted by my pursuit of a Norwegian blonde I had met in French class, I wasn't sure I would have the resolve to plow through its 500 pages. Girl interrupted: I read it in two sittings, mesmerized, spellbound, stupefied.
Since then, I have gone through Catch-22 a dozen times and can recite entire sections, always delighted by the glorious absurdity of Heller's wacky army of characters trapped on a U.S. Air Force base on an Italian island during the Second World War. Yossarian, the central protagonist, drives himself mad after determining that the real enemy is not the German anti-aircraft gunners but the ass-kissing colonels who insist that he and his doomed colleagues fly endless missions to please the glory-seeking generals. The "catch" in Catch-22 is that you can be grounded if you are deemed insane, but that it's not insane to be paralyzed by fear of dying in combat, so you can't be grounded.
Every page is a stunner, every character a study in madness or inanity. Milo Minderbinder contracts with the Germans to bomb his own airfield at the cost of the operation plus 6 per cent. Major Major Major Major is a tragic dullard: "Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three." Or the hapless Clevinger, under interrogation by ridiculous superior officers:
"I don't think it's a joke, sir," Clevinger replied.
"And say 'sir' when you do," ordered Major Metcalf.
On the surface, Catch-22 is an anti-war novel, one that becomes more traumatic as the book progresses. It is, but it is also an appraisal of the tragi-comic folly – even horror – of mindless, self-promoting bureaucracies, whether military, corporate or political. To me, that is the central power of the book, one that has influenced me as a journalist for three decades. Decisions made by big bureaucracies are in the best interest of keeping bureaucracies big. Joseph Heller perfectly captured this reality three generations ago, in sublime, side-splitting form. His novel is timeless.
It's winter in Winnipeg, and snow lies thick on a bit of wasteland filled with electric towers that the locals call The Break. You can feel the cold in Katherena Vermette's debut novel, The Break, which takes its name from the lost bit of land. You can feel the way winter fills everyone's bones.
I've never been to Winnipeg in winter (Toronto's just about my limit, thanks), but I felt like I had after I read The Break. In the book, a crime has been committed that affects several generations of women in a Métis family. They huddle together for warmth, metaphorically speaking. They don't always succeed in warming themselves, or each other. The crime, like the cold, creeps into every corner of their lives.
It's such a great novel. Not just for the portrait of the neighbourhood, which is engrossing, but for the love Vermette has for her characters, even as she gazes with icy eyes at their flaws. One character in particular stands out, because this person is ostensibly the villain of the story: They (I have to be coy here) have done a terrible thing, an unforgivable thing. And yet this character is drawn so carefully and believably that you see exactly how and why they have come to this place. This person carries winter within, through no fault of their own.
It's easy to empathize with characters who share what we imagine are our best traits. It's much harder to feel for one who seems monstrous, at least on the surface. Vermette's gift to the reader lies in how much meaning she finds below that surface.
The distance between Toronto and Calcutta is 12,538 kilometres and that's about how distant my world as a 14-year-old growing up in Etobicoke felt from my parents'. For first-generation kids, the usual challenges of connecting with their families are often added to the segregation of their lives at home and their lives at school, with their friends and online. We were worlds apart.
In the spring of 2007, a film adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake was about to hit theatres. I tracked down the book and started reading it two weeks beforehand to prepare. It was about a Bengali couple that moved from India to the United States after an arranged marriage and it followed their lives and the lives of their children. For the first time, I saw myself in a book, but most importantly, it was the first time I saw my parents, down to the jhaal muri made with Rice Krispies and mustard oil, an afternoon chai staple.
As an only child, I was still fairly close with my family, so of course we talked often and I could outline their biographies with a good amount of detail: the schools they went to; their first times leaving India; and the countless relatives they had close bonds with that I had perhaps met once, if at all. But there was often something missing. Lahiri, like me, a Bengali Indian born and raised in the West, helped spark a conversation with my Ma and Baba that went beyond what they did and experienced, but how those things made them feel.
This was new. Feelings are very low on the list of Bengali family talking points, where the front-runner is usually: "Have you eaten?" Through the experiences of the characters in the book, we found parallels such as the melancholy of moving away from friends and family after an arranged marriage and the confusion and, at times, rejection of raising children in a culture different from you own. I imagine those conversations and hearing passages from the book so similar to their own lives helped legitimize those feelings and make them feel less alone. For me, it was one of the first times growing up that I started to see them as the multidimensional people they are. They were vulnerable.
Finally, when the film came out in theatres, we drove to our local theatre. I'll never forget the look of elation on their faces as the film started and they heard their mother tongue in its signature Calcutta accent, proudly ignoring the subtitles emblazoned across the screen.
As the child of a constantly relocating military family, I quickly came to fear adventures. Adventures meant screeching packing tape, new cities and teary goodbyes.
In the midst of one of these moves, I picked up a book by Roald Dahl. His tales of Oompa-Loompas and giant peaches are known across the globe, but it was the story of his own adventures that grabbed me the most.
Going Solo begins in 1938 with Dahl, at the age of 22, on a steamship from London to Mombasa – the first part of his journey to work for Royal Dutch Shell in Dar es Salaam.
The young Dahl spends the voyage surrounded by English colonialists, returning to the far-flung reaches of the empire. Or "sinewy sunburnt gophers" as he calls them.
They cling so desperately to their British norms that, in fetid 48-degree-heat, they don dinner jackets and bow ties for cocktail hour.
"I consider myself very lucky to have caught a glimpse of this rare species while it roamed the forests and foot-hills of earth," Dahl writes. "For today it is totally extinct … they were the craziest bunch of humans I shall ever meet."
Dahl's stay in East Africa is short, but filled with lush descriptions of the kind people and local customs he becomes enamoured with. When war is declared, he sets off to join the RAF as a pilot.
These adventures take him to Egypt, Iraq, Greece, Palestine and Syria. Yet despite the dangers, despite the constant changes, he chronicles every tale with a palpable excitement.
Dahl acknowledges the sheer luck that got him through the war. But he never fails to be delighted by moments of joy or quirkiness in otherwise-harrowing experiences.
In the years since I first picked up Going Solo, that excitement has always stuck with me. Dahl taught me that a life filled with adventure is not something to be feared, but to be embraced.
Nicholson Baker's U and I: A True Story changed the way I thought about books, writers, writing, reading and what it meant to be honest on the page. That's quite a lot for one book to have accomplished.
U and I is a (short) book-length essay about Baker's obsession with John Updike – a writer his mother admired (she once laughed out loud at Updike's description, in describing a golf game, of a "divot the size of an undershirt"), and whom Baker thereupon wanted to emulate. The book begins with Baker deciding not to write about Donald Barthelme, who had just died, but to write about Updike instead, because the stakes in writing about a living writer seemed higher, more consequential.
At that point, the book departs from convention completely: Baker admits, for instance, that he has only read half a dozen of Updike's more than 20 novels (he wrote nearly 60 books, in total). But lack of familiarity never stops a young writer from being obsessed by an older one! In fact, it's lack of familiarity that stokes the obsession. And how obsessive he is! Baker wants to be Updike: He notes that, while he doesn't golf, they both have psoriasis, both on their penises – which Baker desperately hopes gives them something in common. Of course, as the always hilarious, brilliant, stylish and readable Baker eventually reveals, what they really share is the ability to experience the world ecstatically.
Baker somehow manages to take an ancient, rather pompous genre – the literary essay of writerly appreciation – and turn it into something it has never been before, an utterly candid, and therefore shocking, examination of the way we really read, and use books, as opposed to the way we pretend to read, loaded down by all our cultural pretensions. Baker thinks the stuff we forget we've read is more important than what we remember: Throughout the book, he keeps quoting Updike from memory, and then exposing how shoddy his memory is, by revealing the actual passage he thinks he's remembering.
And it's very funny, and the story never flags. But I guess what I admire most about U and I is its compassion: for Updike, his industriousness and his failures; for the impossible challenge of writing – and living – honestly, and how often we fail at both; for, most of all, readers, via Baker's assumption that every reader will want to admit the truth about themselves and books, and therefore feel freer than they were when they started the book. That's what reading's all about, isn't it?
It was the summer of 2013, and I was about to head out to the Banff Centre to wrangle a bunch of writers at its Literary Journalism program. My co-editor would be Charlotte Gill, and although I'd been a glancing fan of her fiction, I hadn't yet sat down with her award-winning memoir of working two decades as a tree planter in the forests of Canada. I've had my share of blue-collar jobs, but I couldn't fathom doing such strenuous grunt work even for a week, and hadn't been particularly drawn to reading about it in detail. Still, I would soon be making Gill's acquaintance, and so began burrowing my way into Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe.
I will never think about trees the same again, or more to the point, me and trees, me and tree planters. As much as I appreciate their cool shade on an August day, I had no idea how many things I consume daily into which, as Gill writes, "trees are chipped and digested" and finally emitted: lacquers and turpentines, latex and shampoo, shaving cream, toothpaste, cellophane, bike helmets, bowling balls. Certainly never before had I understood the deep connection between our country's majestic canopies of timber – and the people who keep them replenished – and my own weakness for that least Arcadian of foods, the Twinkie. Yes, there are trees in Twinkies.
Ours is a predatory approach to forests that, as Gill chronicles, stands in dismal contrast to the near-collegial history of trees themselves. "Plants," writes this consummate tree hugger (and, on her worst days on the job, tree hater, too), "began as single-celled organisms, clinging to one another on the surface of warm prehistoric seas" and over time "joined forces and … eventually crept onto the land," where "instead of self-exterminating, they co-operated," their tops taking on the task of photosynthesis, their roots and trunks delivering nutrients and architecture. They are a lesson in reciprocity. And what do we do? Clear-cut them into "illogical landscapes, lunar in their barrenness." Until the planters march in, surviving clouds of mosquitoes, mother grizzlies (and a lot of hard partying back at the camp), to fill the void the rest of us have left.
The near-military camaraderie of the tree-planting tribe, as Gill relates it, mirrors the forest's collective will to survive. When she and her colleagues would "fall down and crack our backs or get stung by a hornet or swell up like blimps or puncture our veins or get poked in the eyes," they had only each other to help reach their way to safety. I can't say I would want to be one of them, but by her final page (and a million seedlings, she estimates, tucked by her into the Canadian landscape), I could understand the abiding appeal, and the monumental importance, of what it is they do.
As I grew up, an avid bookworm in a small, quiet town, I began to realize that great life experiences don't get thrust upon you – especially after I turned 11 and didn't get my Hogwarts letter. Around that time, I lost interest in the fantasy novels I had been obsessed with, disillusioned with tales of predestined glory and epic battles. I started seeking stories about people I wanted to be, real people who went places and did things and led interesting, impactful lives.
I discovered Markus Zusak in middle school. I Am the Messenger tells the tale of a young man in a stagnant existence whose life is changed by a series of mysterious missions, in which he finds himself helping strangers and eventually helping himself.
I read I Am the Messenger over and over again as a teenager, and again as a young adult. I think I still liked that fantasy-esque idea of being pulled from a dull existence and sent on a mission, of being told I had important things to do. As a student, I don't get to read a lot of fiction any more, something my younger self might be disappointed about. But, looking back, I realize now the true takeaway of the book, at least for me: You can't wait for something to happen to you and give your existence meaning. You are the one who will make your life worthwhile.
On a cold night in Russia, Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin gently strokes the wailing face of a murderer named Rogozhin, whose victim's body lies in the same room. With startling empathy, he tries to sooth the delirious state of another.
Myshkin, an epileptic, trembles throughout the night and at times he can't even move his legs, but he neither contacts the police nor leaves the hysterical murderer's side.
By the time the police arrive in the morning, Myshkin is in a near-catatonic state from which he never recovers.
This is the final scene in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Idiot, which inspired my belief in the importance of empathy and kindness. Myshkin's radical and unrestrained compassion is something I think about often.
Dostoevsky's novel itself doesn't offer solutions or happy endings, but he provides insight into the complexities of the human. He forces his readers to feel the most terrible aspects of his characters and the most profoundly angelic – enabling the reader to simply feel, a condition necessary for compassion.
Myshkin represents all the traits Dostoevsky deems the best qualities of a human being. His frank, meek, egoless and kind nature allows him to see the darkest and lightest parts of an individual's soul without judgment or idealism – allowing him to view people in their complexity, while drawing out the best of everyone he meets.
Myshkin acts to alleviate suffering with care despite the brutal and harsh realities of St. Petersburg's society.
In his novel, Dostoevsky teaches the reader about an empathy so pure that its execution is not dependent or influenced by the character and actions of the receiver. In a world where judgment, more often times than not, is misinformed and faulty, unrestrained compassion becomes essential. If genuine, it compels people to tackle the root causes of injustice rather than plastering human suffering with bandages.